Jamie Gatson didn’t start making rap music because he wanted money and fame, or even because he enjoyed it.
It was death that gave life to Gatson’s beginnings as an artist.
Nearly ten years ago, in October 2009, the Champaign Police killed Gatson’s close friend, unarmed, 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington. The shooting was ruled an accident.
After attempting to get criminal charges brought against the police officers and messy back-and-forth legal exchanges, the Carrington’s reluctantly settled with the City of Champaign for $470,000.
Gatson, a high school student at Centennial High School, was in turmoil. There was no way to bring his friend back. Before and after Carrington’s death, Gatson wrote poetry. But he felt that nothing was helping him move on and he struggled with a deep depression that rooted in him as a result.
“I needed a way to vent and cope,” Gatson said. “I felt like poetry wasn't helping me enough, I actually had to say [my feelings] and get it out into the world.”
So he blended his rhymes with rhythm, dedicating himself to finding a positive outlet for his pent up sadness, sense of loss and anger. And he let the world hear his unabashed thoughts, crafting tales about his inner turmoil, weaving his world view into his lyrics.
“I felt like I had to put it into music,” Gatson said. “I had to vent to whoever was listening.”
His coping mechanism was always an outlet for his own expression, but he wasn’t out in the hallways of Centennial between classes trying to market his music to others or anything like that. He put it out there for himself — anyone who happened to hear it did and it didn’t really matter to Gatson if no one did.
Eventually, as he got set to graduate in 2013, Gatson came around to pushing to get his work to others’ ears. He felt that many in the community, particularly those close to Carrington, hadn’t really vocalized their feelings.
People don’t really express and deal with their feelings and internal struggles enough, Gatson believes, and with his music he wants to give those people a voice of encouragement.
“I felt like I battled with stuff like in my head at the time,” Gatson said. “It was like, ‘Yo, you ain't speak up when this stuff happened’. So in my head, I had to put it into the world so if somebody else going through what I'm going through, they know that they're not alone.”
Years later, Gatson has released dozens on dozens of songs, multiple projects, played live shows and has even embarked on tour since the beginning of the new year.
At 24 years old, the kid who once felt voiceless is comfortable in his own skin and has continued to hone his musical craft. While doing maintenance work at Unit 4 Schools, Gatson has kept working, releasing projects in each of the last three years.
In July, Gatson put out Blessed To Become A Blessing, a seven-track EP that was sort of a coming-of-age project for him.
“I think that's when people started taking me seriously,” Gatson said.
He’d spent much of the year recording, but had also been pushing to get his name out by regularly attending open mic nights at The Canopy Club and playing any bill he could get his name on around town.
“I was like, 'Yo, I'm getting my name on every bill,’” Gatson said. “‘I'm touching every stage that I can in Champaign.’”
It didn’t do crazy numbers or anything — its most-streamed track, “Independence Day” has just over 6,000 streams on Spotify — but Gatson reached a record number of listeners and more importantly, new listeners that he didn’t know personally.
The project is an emotional one for Gatson, who regularly empties his head of what’s ailing him by pouring it into his music.
“Pretty much,it’s all about battling my own demons, like overcoming struggles and depression,” Gatson said. “I want to put my story on the front, so people that are battling but scared to talk about it or don't talk about, they can have somebody that they can relate to.”
People either found his work on the internet or through any of his performances in the area, Gatson said.
“[Blessed] kind of picked up steam right away,” Gatson said. “It was different listeners that I'd never touched that actually gravitated toward the project. It opened up a lot of doors.”
After the release, Gatson worked his way onto the bill in support of Smokepurpp, a buzzing product of Soundcloud.
He also submitted his work to A3C, a music festival in Atlanta that takes place every October, and was eventually selected as one of the festival’s artists to discover and performed at the festival.
It was a monumental achievement for someone who started rapping for no other reason than to ease a troubled mind.
Though he didn’t have one of the prime performance slots, Gatson made the most of it, relishing the chance to perform in front of tons of new faces and network with tons of people in the music industry.
“One of the dopest experiences was just like the different panels they have and different conferences that you can learn from people doing this already in the industry, that have already made it,” Gatson said. “Basically, being able to go there and be a student of the game and actually learn from the pioneers that are pushing it forward. That was the dopest experience.”
He converted his A3C set into another festival opportunity — this one in Tucson, Arizona — and also gradually began to plan a tour that with New Jersey artist K-Prez.
Kicking off February 2nd in Bellingham, Washington, the pair have done shows in Olympia, Washington, Chicago, and St. Louis so far and have shows booked in Boston, New York, Charlotte, Charleston, Phoenix and San Diego before wrapping up in Los Angeles on March 3rd
Most of the shows have been at bars and smaller venues, but as many artists would vouch, it’s an achievement just to be able to put together a tour as an independent artist without a huge following.
After he finishes out his tour, he’s got a new project in the works, titled Draft Day.
Like many kids, Gatson grew up with the firm belief that he’d one day be in the NBA, dropping dimes and bringing in fat checks.
He believes the EP can help propel him to new heights as an artist, if it all comes out as well as it can and is received with the same opinions as Blessed.
“I just wanted to put basketball with my music because I feel like this project is introducing me to the world,” Gatson said. “After they hear it, it's time for the draft, it's time for draft day.”
Gatson wants to draw in the hearts and minds of his listeners with his storytelling and lyricism, but he also aims for each song to resonate well musically with listeners.
He’s come a long way from his humble roots, but the process of making music still has the same purpose it always has for Gatson: expression and healing.
“I tell a lot of stories (on Draft Day) that I really wasn't open to telling before,” Gatson said. “So I feel like I'm giving more of me to the world, instead of just throwing tads and bits into it. To actually get to know me a little bit more and my thought process, but at the same time just put songs on there that you could vibe to. It's not just lyrical, it's stories and stuff you can vibe to at the same time. I feel like it's my best work.”
As the ten year anniversary of his longtime friend’s killing approaches, Gatson hasn’t lost sight of where this started.
He wants to keep Kiwane Carrington alive in his music.
He wants people to know and understand the pain that he has experienced, but he wants them to know that his journey is like many others’ journeys.
And that no one is alone in bearing their burden.
“Some people wake up and just be like, 'Yo, this is how I get paid. Let's go do whatever we gotta do,’” Gatson said. “For me, I don't really care about the money. This is literally helping me cope.”
While the strides Gatson has made in the wake of tragedy are notable and something he is proud of, this thing is nowhere close to over.
There is music to be made, stories to tell.
“A lot of my music tells a story of growing up here and what I had to overcome and what I've been through,” Gatson said. “That sparks a lot of my music, I'm highly influenced by Champaign. Being here my whole life, I have a lot of stories that I've told. But I still have a lot of stories that I haven't told, so I'm still working on getting there.”